The Trump administration struggled on Monday to defend its policy of separating parents from their sons and daughters at the southern US border amid growing national outrage and the release of a shocking recording of sobbing children.
As the White House scrambled to respond to the deepening political crisis, the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, flew from New Orleans to Washington to face a barrage of questions from reporters, even as Democrats demanded her resignation and the outcry reached a critical mass.
Nielsen claimed that America was a country of “compassion” and “heart” but was unable to square the circle regarding whether the separations were a vindication of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigration or an unintended consequence of a law made by the US Congress.
During the West Wing briefing, she did not hear – or ignored – a reporter at the back of the room who played secretly recorded audio, first obtained by ProPublica, in which several Central American children, separated from their parents last week, can be heard crying for their “Mami!” and “Papa!”
On the recording, one child says: “I don’t want them to stop my father, I don’t want them to deport him.” A border agent can be heard joking through the wails: “Well, we have an orchestra here, right? ... What we’re missing is a conductor.”
Nielsen – who Trump has reportedly criticised in private for failing to tackle border security – told reporters she had not heard the recording.
Trump has found himself at the centre of many moral storms since becoming president nearly 18 months ago but they have more often related to words than to actions. The border separations, however, appear to have crossed a new line as the audio recording emerges, as well as harrowing photos of children in tears or in fenced cages, provoking some to draw comparisons with concentration camps.
The process has triggered condemnation from four former first ladies: Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush (who called it “cruel” and “immoral”), Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2016 election to Trump. Even the current first lady, Melania Trump, has released a statement saying she “hates to see” children separated from their families.
The separations followed the April announcement of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, under which everyone caught crossing the border illegally is to be prosecuted. Consequently, more adults are being jailed, pending trial, and their children are removed from them. Nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their families in the past six weeks.
On Monday, at a White House press briefing that started four hours later than planned, Nielsen argued that illegal immigration on the southern border had exceeded 50,000 people per month for the past three months. Since this time last year, she added, there had been a 325% increase in unaccompanied foreign children and a 435% increase in family units entering the country illegally.
She denied that any children had been mistreated and argued: “This administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border ... Parents who entered illegally are by definition criminals ... By entering our country illegally often in dangerous circumstances, illegal immigrants have put their children at risk.”
The homeland security department, she continued, was merely enforcing the law in a way that past administrations had failed to do. “Here is the bottom line: DHS is no longer ignoring the law. We are enforcing the laws as they exist on the books.”
Nielsen called on Congress to close loopholes in the law so families could stay together. “Congress and the courts created this problem and Congress alone can fix it. Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States.”
John Kelly, the White House chief of staff and Nielsen’s predecessor at homeland security, told National Public Radio in May that deterrence was “a big part” of the policy. Asked if the situation was therefore playing out as intended, Nielsen replied: “I find that offensive.”
Nielsen was followed at the podium by the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, who said the White House would reject a narrow fix by Congress to address the issue and that Trump’s priorities, such as funding a border wall and tightening immigration laws, must also be met. She said: “We want to fix the whole thing, we don’t want to tinker with just part of it.”
As the issue overwhelmed TV news networks and threatened to cause lasting damage to America’s reputation abroad, Trump himself weighed in at an event ostensibly promoting his National Space Council. He repeated his past attempt to deflect blame to the Democrats, whom he branded “obstructionists”, and urged them to find a legislative solution.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” the president said. “It won’t be. If you look at what’s happening in Europe, if you look at what’s happening in other places, we can’t allow that to happen to the United States – not on my watch.”
But Democrats rejected that assertion. Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, responded to Nielsen’s remarks by saying: “This utter lack of compassion and respect for basic human dignity is grotesque. And the blind contempt his staff has shown toward anyone pointing out the truth is a vile disgrace. This is not who we are. The American people are watching.”
The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and senators Kamala Harris of California and Tina Smith of Minnesota called on Nielsen to resign. Smith said: “She’s denied that this is happening at all, and then said that she ‘wouldn’t apologize’ for what’s happening to families. Kirstjen Nielsen has lost the credibility and the moral authority to lead this agency.”
Immigration is usually a rallying point for the Trump base but even some of his supporters have raised objections to the current action. The Rev Franklin Graham, a longtime Trump ally, said: “It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit.”
Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s former communications director, told CNN: “I hope he changes it today, frankly. This is very, very bad for the Republican party, and this is bad for the president. I want to see him win re-election.”